Chapter 1: The Only Logical Conclusion
White Court vampires are bred, beautiful to the eye; and the Black Court are made, as rotten on the surface as they are at the core. There's no mistaking either one, if you're in the know. But there's something really perverse about the Red-- black leathery things taking up residence under the still-recognizable shells of whoever they'd been before. I've run across each type over the years; won some battles against them, and lost others. But none of those encounters had given me any clue what to expect of the fourth type of vampires: the Jade Court.
I'd only ever heard of them from Shiro, once upon a Denarian hunt. All he'd said at the time was that they respected the Accords-- he'd dueled one, once, somewhere in their Far Eastern home territory. I had no idea whether they fell closer to the 'tolerable allies, if you give them the right incentive' or 'never trust them within twenty feet of your neck' end of the supernatural scale, nor even what their notable features might be. Even Bob, my trusty lab assistant and Spirit of Intellect, couldn't tell me much more; his vast databank of mystical information tends to be rooted in Western culture as inspired and influenced by the Fae. The Jade are secretive monsters, choosy about which mortals they'll eat and even more selective in their interactions with other paranormal forces.
So perhaps I can be forgiven for walking into a scheduled meeting with Ramirez-- on his turf, in a restaurant called the Black Pool not far from a rumored Jade Court outpost-- and assuming the worst when I spotted a man with greenish-pale skin bending over his sprawled body. Ramirez lay crumpled on the floor, his battle-scarred staff about an arm's-length from his extended right hand, as though he'd tried to defend himself and been knocked unconscious for his troubles. My blasting rod leapt into my hand almost without a conscious decision, and I Forzare'd the guy's ass across the room before anything else about him even had a chance to register.
Me Warden, him predatory non-human. That's about as far as my train of thought had gone.
He hit the far wall with a solid thump, much harder than I'd have dared throw a human being, and slumped over in a position much like Ramirez's. A gun-shaped object fell out of his hand as he collapsed. I wasn't sure what type of gun it was-- the end glowed a radioactive shade of sky blue, and it looked nothing like any make of handgun I'd seen before-- but its profile was pretty unmistakable as a weapon. I knocked it away from him with a controlled burst of wind that sent papers fluttering atop the nearest table, then knelt next to Ramirez, feeling at his throat for a pulse.
A reassuringly steady beat throbbed under my fingertips, and the tension in my shoulders relaxed a notch as I slid my hand through his hair to probe the back of his skull for knots. There was no blood pool under him, nor any obvious gaping wounds; maybe the intruder had simply knocked him out? On the other hand-- visions of what a supernatural predator might want with a live, unharmed, unconscious wizard raised the hairs on the backs of my arms, and I looked up from my layman's diagnostic effort to cast a glare in the collapsed possibly-vampire's direction.
Unexpectedly, I found my view blocked by a pair of shins clad in military-style boots and black-cloth trousers. I barely had time to look up-- to register a vibrantly blue shirt, the suggestion of pointy ears, and dark eyes looking back at me from under strangely slanted brows-- before I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder and the world abruptly went dark.
Later-- I don't know how much later, but it had to have been more than a few minutes-- I woke, laid out flat on a hard surface, hands crossed over my breast as though I were in a coffin and my head and shoulder throbbing like mad. My skin threatened to part ways with me and crawl away as I realized that I had been taken prisoner yet again; some of my least favorite nightmares start that way, cribbed together from unpleasant past experiences. There was no subterranean chill, though; the surface underneath me wasn't dense enough to be stone; and the sense of moving air around me told me I was still in a large, open room. Maybe the vampire had laid me out on one of the tables in the restaurant?
I was tempted to crack my eyes open and leap to my feet, but there was more noise in the room than two unconscious bodies could make, and that made me cautious and wary. I figured I'd better get at least a vague idea of where my attacker was-- and whether he'd brought any friends along-- before I cast that die and faced the consequences. So I concentrated on keeping my breathing slow and even, and Listened.
Listening's a trick that I've picked up over the years; I'm pretty sure anyone with enough patience can learn to master it, but I couldn't tell you exactly how it works. I focused on my sense of hearing, especially through the ear nearest the faint susurrus of sound I'd picked up, and it gradually resolved into a clear, though faint conversation between at least three different people.
"...have the same type of weapons, both of them; though how they hide something capable of projecting energy in such a way as a simple piece of wood, I've no idea. It would take advanced cloaking and holographic technology beyond anything Enterprise has." The first speaker had a definite accent, either Scottish or Irish, I couldn't be sure.
"But we know only one person went back," a second voice said firmly, in tones ringing with the habit of command. Believe me, after spending years under the mentorship of Ebenezar McCoy, I knew what genuine authority sounded like. "So which one is he?"
"Regrettably, neither," the third voice commented. "The textiles of their clothing and the materials used in their other accoutrements are indigenous to this era, not simply reproductions. In addition, my tricorder showed evidence of trace minerals and biological contaminants that are extremely uncommon in the twenty-third century, combined with a lack of those markers that might be expected in any human raised on Earth after the environmental damage of your Third World War."
Third World War? Twenty-third century? My attacker was a vampire from the future?
Maybe whatever he'd done to knock me out had done more damage than I'd thought, because clearly I must be delirious if I was starting to wonder if he might not even be a vampire at all.
"Damn," the second voice sighed. "So much for that explanation. And our traveler couldn't have arrived much before we did; probably a decade at most. Do you think that's enough time for him to have reproduced these-- weapons-- and trained other people in their use?"
If he meant what it sounded like-- Ramirez' staff and my blasting rod, though they'd probably also found my own staff by now-- then, no; not that I wanted to tell them that. If they didn't understand magic in the first place-- if it wasn't pervasive enough in the future for them to be aware of it-- then 'alien' was looking more likely than 'vampire', and hell if I wanted a hostile alien trekking back to the future with enough knowledge to endanger the Accords. Whoever their magical time traveler was-- and ow, my brain hurt just thinking that phrase-- he'd probably plugged right into an existing power structure and made like a native, difficult for a technologically-based task force to track down. Maybe even the Black Council? Which would explain-- a lot more than I wanted to think about.
"There's no tellin'," the Irish-or-Scotsman replied. "I'd have said no-- trying to build any technology as complex as that'd have to be would be like working with stone knives and bearskins-- but this mission has been beyond my ken from the start."
"Yet we know our malefactor is from a culture merely the equal of our own; and if you cannot fathom such effects as these weapons produce through the use of technology, Mr. Scott, perhaps we must consider the fact that they are not, in fact, weapons at all." Voice Three was all calm reason, logically shaving closer to the truth. Damn.
"What are you saying, Spock?" Voice Two asked, patiently. "If they aren't weapons, then what...?"
Mr. Spock-- and surely that must be an alias, because the famous elderly pediatrician of that name had died before I hung out my solo shingle, at least seven years ago-- cleared his throat. "A famous author and inventor of Earth's twentieth century once proposed three laws, the third of which is in use to this day: namely, that 'any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.' I submit to you that the reverse is also true: that magic, under whatever label it is given, is likewise indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology."
"Magic?" the one identified as Mr. Scott blurted, incredulously. "Fairy tales and leprechauns?"
"I would not endeavor to guess at the specific historicity of any given legend from Earth's past," Mr. Spock said, "but it is the logical conclusion; in fact, the only one that explains all the observed events."
"The logical conclusion?" the leader echoed him. "That is not logical, Spock. Unless there's some kind of Vulcan magic you still haven't told us about?"
Mr. Spock's voice grew more remote. "In fact, Vulcans have several abilities, including touch telepathy and the maintenance of the soul in the physical world after bodily death, that would have appeared quite magical to humans of this era," he said, "but that is not relevant to the current discussion."
He was an alien. Capable of reading my thoughts with his fingers. My skin started to crawl again, and I tried to remember what useful components I might've been carrying that day other than my gun and blasting rod.
"What is relevant," he continued, "is the fact that both gentlemen continue to produce a very strong dampening field capable of disrupting most electronics of the era, especially the second arrival. Had I been equipped with an older-style bicorder, rather than the newer equipment powered by duotronics, I may not have been able to take any readings in their presence at all-- and the field continues to distort any readings nearer central body mass than hands or feet."
"So... you're suggesting that magic is some kind of organically enabled electromagnetic manipulation? But that's ridiculous!" Mr. Scott replied.
Mr. Spock cleared his throat. "May I remind you, Commander, that when the impossible is eliminated, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth."
A silence settled; followed by a noise of frustration. "Aye. But supposing that's so, and supposing yon fugitive was also a-- a magician, then how are we to find him?"
"The same way we found these two," Boss Voice said, grimly. "It's just that now we know what the emanations we were tracking mean-- and that we may run into a lot more before we find our suspect."
"Well, that's just great. A needle in a bloody haystack," Mr. Scott sighed.
"One we must locate, if we are to prevent the cataclysm that his presence will initiate: one which will destroy your world before contact with mine can ever be established."
"And incidentally preventing you from ever being born," Boss Voice groaned. "Time travel. Why does it always have to be time travel? At least this time we don't have to worry about Bones running amok."
"Indeed," Mr. Spock said.
"Aye," Mr. Scott sighed. "Just us chickens."
"So can we leave them here safely, or do you think we should try to interrogate them?"
There was a pause. "Attempting an interrogation would be unwise at this juncture, Captain," Spock replied. "We have no means of knowing the extent of their abilities, nor countering their effects. Moreover, they are likely to be displeased by our method of introduction. As they are unharmed, I think it wiser to simply-- leave, and approach our next subject more carefully."
"I figured," the still-unnamed Captain replied. "Okay. Leave their-- sticks-- by the door; and see if you can get that tricorder of yours to track over a wider range. We have some hunting to do." Then the footsteps moved away, and a groan at my side finally filled me in on Ramirez's whereabouts.
I cracked my eyelids on an empty room, then sat up and started patting myself down. Aliens. Time travelers. A time traveling warlock from the future, who violated the Seven Laws by his very existence. Hell's Bells, we were in trouble.
Why did I have a sneaking suspicion the bastard would turn out to be Cowl?
I wished my temporary abductors the best of luck. But as sure as my name was Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, I had a feeling this wouldn't be the last time I ever heard from Misters Spock, Scott, and their Captain.
Chapter 2: Is There a Problem, Officer?
I'd seen a lot of strange things since I first took out an ad in the yellow pages and set up shop as the only wizard in Chicago with a license to investigate. Giant purple monkeys throwing flaming handfuls of their own dung. Queens of Faerie going to war atop a cloudbank. Death by a porn star's Evil Eye, sort of like a souped-up, targeted version of Murphy's Law with a side helping of heaving bosoms and suggestive stage names. And of course no such list would be complete without a mention of Zombie Sue.
I would never forget the amazing adrenaline rush of barreling down the streets of my city with sixty-five million years' worth of predator roaring between my thighs. Neither would Carlos Ramirez, my fellow wizard and Warden of the White Council, who'd been with me on that climactic day, riding an ecto-fleshed tyrannosaur into battle. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that we both agreed our encounter with time traveling aliens-- apparently on the hunt for a rogue wizard transplanted from the future-- was quite possibly the strangest situation either of us had ever faced.
Ramirez didn't actually remember much of his encounter with our extratemporal visitors. They'd come into the restaurant where we were supposed to meet openly carrying strange weapons, two shaped like guns and the third some kind of glowing rectangular box, and when he'd reached for his staff to prepare a defense they'd sent him into la-la land with a blue bolt before he'd even finished gathering his will. He didn't even recall any details of what they looked like; their vivid, primary colored uniforms-- blue, yellow, and red-- had effectively distracted him from noticing any other distinguishing features.
I hadn't had much of a chance to get a look at them myself, since I'd been knocked out nearly as swiftly as Ramirez, mere seconds after I walked in the door and Forzare'd one of the attackers away from Ramirez' slumped body. The most I could say was that the one in blue had greenish skin, black hair, and pointy ears-- and was much too solid to be a refugee from the Nevernever.
Fortunately, he underestimated how quickly a wizard could recover from the weird neck thing he'd done to stun me, and I woke quickly enough to Listen in on a little of his discussion with his comrades. They'd dropped enough clues to tell me they definitely weren't from our timeline-- and one of the other two had a pretty pronounced Scottish accent.
Given the fact that the White Council is headquartered in Scotland, and that time travel is one of the Seven explicitly forbidden uses of magic, that had given me a bit of a pause. Especially considering the fact that recent events had pointed to the existence of a Council within a Council that had much blacker goals in mind for humanity. Okay, so an accent was a bit thin to build an accusation on-- but it really didn't take much, not in that suspicious climate.
What if the rogue the time travelers were tracing was himself a part of the Council, Black or otherwise? Stars and stones, even if he wasn't, and a Warden team caught up to the aliens before the aliens caught their fugitive... would they also chase down the trio's quarry, or would they simply label the three Warlocks and move on to the next fire that needed quenching? The Council's justice had been a little trigger happy since three quarters of their grey-cloaked police force had been wiped out by Red Court vampires.
On the one hand, I could understand the practicality of such slash and burn policies; on the other, the sheer waste of young lives was a constant sour churn in the pit of my stomach. And in the present case, it could be the end of us all, if the aliens hadn't been lying about the fact that their rogue wizard was poised to bring about the end of our world. I couldn't help but think we'd all be better off if I caught up to our technological time travelers sooner rather than later.
I managed to talk Ramirez into attempting to trace them ourselves first, and putting off reporting in until we had some kind of proof either way to offer the Merlin. Not that it took much; I had no doubt Morgan would say I was a bad influence on the kid, but he had more than his share of cowboy tendencies even before we rode a dinosaur together.
We had two main factors in our favor. First, that America overall was extremely under strength for Wardens, so as the local Regional Commanders Ramirez and I would be able to keep the situation fairly close. And second: that the green-skinned guy had left a smear of blood and a few synthetic threads caught on an exposed nail sticking out of the wall I'd knocked him into. It was a very tiny smear, and there were only a couple of threads-- but considering the apparently extraterrestrial origins of the man who'd shed them, I figured it would be more than enough for my purposes. The more unique a thing I was tracking, the easier it was for the magic to zero in on it.
I didn't have time for anything fancy, so I grabbed a salt cellar from the table the aliens had laid me out on and split a pair of those disposable paper-wrapped chopsticks in half. Then I unscrewed the cap of the shaker and poured a line of pale crystals in a circle around me on the restaurant's tile floor, bit my thumb, and squeezed out a drop of blood to activate it. Finally, I tied the scrap of napkin I'd used to collect the greenish blood and blue fibers around the shaft of the chopstick and closed my eyes, murmuring nonsense syllables while I focused on what I wanted to accomplish.
I could practically feel Ramirez' amused gaze on me as I worked. I paid him no mind, though; location magic was one of my specialties, as was magical improvisation. If it could be found, I could find it.
Once the spell was sufficiently set, I opened my eyes, then nudged the line of salt with my sneaker to break the circle. The chopstick immediately jumped in my hands like a dowsing rod, and I nodded to myself in satisfaction.
"Good, they haven't gone far," I said. "Radius can't be more than a few miles."
"A napkin and a chopstick? Really? Harry, we have got to talk about your sense of style," Ramirez snorted, but he fished a set of keys out of his pocket without prompting.
I grinned at him. "Yeah, yeah. You can school me after we find these guys. In the meantime, to the Carlosmobile! Away!"
He made a disgusted face at that, but the jibes had done their work, clearing the last of the cobwebs from our unexpected encounter. We headed for his clunker of a car, parked out behind the Black Pool, and began the trial and error process of seeking three needles in a very large haystack with only a rudimentary compass for guidance. One of these days, I was really going to have to work out a magical version of GPS; I'd seen how useful that could be during the hunt for the Word of Kemmler, when I'd had Butters around to work the technology for me.
In retrospect, I probably should have expected where the spell took us. If we'd just flipped open the phone book and dialed the nearest few cheap motels, we probably could have driven straight to our quarry without wasting the couple of hours we spent to-ing and fro-ing down narrow streets and around unexpected corners. It was, after all, exactly what I did when I arrived in a city out of easy driving range of Chicago: I sought out a new, temporary home base to work from. And if their technology really tracked emanations of "magic" the way their conversation had made it sound rather than anything more personal, they'd have tons of local targets to sift through just within the city limits.
Wizards might have been relatively thin on the ground in the US-- at least, wizards old enough to have any control over their power-- but there were always minor practitioners gathering in any city large enough to be worthy of the name. If our visitors had to check each one of them to make sure they weren't their time traveler-- well, they might have all the time in the world to get it right, but I doubted the Black Council's victims would be able to say the same.
Presuming, of course, that my guess about their target's assumed identity was correct. But in my experience, you can't go wrong living by the old adage: hope for the best, prepare for the worst. And when the potential fallout is dire enough? It might even be saner to simply prepare, and forgo the wishful thinking entirely.
We probably should have contacted at least the Gatekeeper at that point, before walking into the motel room the intruders were occupying. But I didn't want to risk the rest of the Senior Council-- and the army of administrators who supported them-- finding out before I had a good idea of what the consequences might be. And besides-- judging by past experience, Rashid had a tendency to involve himself in advance if I happened to need a nudge regarding events that threatened to overlap his jurisdiction. So really, I figured, the lack of warning from his direction should count as permission to do what I wanted to do anyway.
Logic: I has it.
Ramirez eased the car into the farthest space in the lot of the inaccurately named View Inn, and I unfolded myself from the passenger seat to follow the twitches of the chopstick along the line of external doors. It finally seized up on door number L, which had probably been a 7 before the screw attaching the metal digit to the door had loosened.
"This the one?" Ramirez asked as he came up behind me, extending the fingers of his left hand to ready that weblike green energy shield I'd seen him use in battle against specters and zombies.
I tucked the chopstick into a pocket of my duster and retrieved my blasting rod, grasping it loosely in the fingers of my right hand. With Ramirez covering defense, I was on offense for the evening. Though with any luck, Misters Scott, Spock, and the Captain whose name they'd never spoken in my hearing would be in more of a talking mood than they had been a few hours earlier.
"Yep," I said. Then I summoned a grin for anyone who might be spying out through the peephole and rapped the knuckles of my gloved left hand against the door.
The silence on the other side of the door took on a distinct hushed quality; then a sharp, short phrase that might have rhymed with truck rang out, followed by a flurry of words in the commanding voice that belonged to the one called Captain. He'd definitely recognized us.
Now. I had my suspicions, but there was something I wanted to check....
"Little pig, little pig, won't you let me come in?" I sang out.
The door opened, just to the extent of its security chain, and a blond man closer to Ramirez' height than mine peered out. That's not exactly short, but his gaze still hit around my chin level; he blinked, then looked up and raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin. Though you don't look much like a big bad wolf to me. I'm sorry, who are you?"
He didn't look nearly old enough to be in command of anything, much less be so confident in that brazen reaction-- but he had at least as much presence of personality as the Merlin, if not the magic to back it up. It was a little disconcerting.
Just as well my standard reaction to authority figures is to turn the insouciance up to eleven.
"Not the big bad wolf," I replied mock-politely. "But you're human; and I find that very interesting, since the friend who did a number on my shoulder obviously isn't. Which begs the question, is the wolf you're actually after also human, or something maybe a little easier to pick out of a crowd?"
"What? Aliens?" the Captain snorted. "Do you even know how ridiculous you sound? What's this really about? Are you, what, some kind of salesmen or something?"
Ramirez raised an eyebrow, rolling with the tone of the conversation. "So you didn't just invade my uncle's restaurant looking for a guy whose presence is going to 'initiate' some kind of 'cataclysm'? Huh; I guess I must have hallucinated some other attacker who looks just like you."
He narrowed his eyes at us-- they were a very vivid shade of blue, and combined with the old gold of his hair made me think incongruously of clear skies over the cornfields back on the farm where Ebenezar McCoy had ground down the worst of my rough edges as a teenager-- then stepped back and undid the chain. As the door swung open, it exposed his alien friend, standing behind and slightly to the side of him the same way Ramirez stood flanking me. Mr. Green had acquired a hat sometime since we'd last seen him, a dark knit thing pulled low over the tips of his ears, and there was something very watchful about his body language. Over on one of the beds, another human in red-- probably the owner of the Scottish accent-- hunched over some kind of technological device that projected a 3D grid of the city streets overlaid with glowing dots.
The Captain had turned to engage in some kind of nonverbal conversation with his friend conveyed by shifting eyebrows and shoulders, but after a moment he stepped back, allowing us admittance to the room. "Okay, so maybe we do have something to discuss."
He was bright enough not to invite us in. But not educated enough not to know that there was no threshold on a motel room regardless. They really were clueless about wizards, then. That didn't bode well for their chase.
The alien-- Mr. Spock, by process of elimination-- raised a sharply angled eyebrow at Ramirez and I as the door closed behind us. "How were you able to locate us so swiftly?" he asked, confirming my fear.
"Now that," I temporized, "is a very interesting story. Almost as interesting as yours, perhaps?"
The Captain's eyes narrowed again, possibilities visibly clicking over behind them. "Perhaps," he replied, easily catching my drift.
Negotiation stage: achieved. I carefully tucked my blasting rod away in a pocket and shook out the shields of my bracelet; they wouldn't know what it was, but I felt a little less naked with it ready, even with Ramirez still at my side. Then I took a breath to take stock. Some part of me, that buried part that probably kept Star Wars figurines in addition to his evil goatee, was engaging in the mental equivalent of rolling on the floor laughing hysterically and gasping the word 'alien'; the rest seemed all fired up about the new challenge.
It's possible my instincts might not be the brightest ones in the business.
"Thought so. Call me Dresden. This is Ramirez. And we tracked you using that 'organically enabled electromagnetic manipulation' your friend over there mentioned earlier."
Mr. Scott looked up from his display with a disgruntled expression. "I was expressing my disbelief at the time; but it's hard to argue with hard evidence. We saw you coming." He pointed to a pair of glowing dots on his display. "But what are all these, then? Even assuming you really are magicians, there simply cannae be that many of you around. I refuse to believe we'd never have heard of you before, if that were so."
"You'd be surprised," I said dryly. "Mind telling me exactly why you want to trace someone like us?"
"And what business is it of yours?" the Captain asked, still watching us narrowly. "I admit our introductions were a little hasty; but we got out of your hair without harming you, and now we're going about our own private business."
"Trampling all over our turf in the process," I pointed out. "We're Wardens; a fugitive wizard in our territory is most definitely our business."
"Warden? Is that not a term referring to a guardian, or prison administrator?" Mr. Spock asked, eyebrows lifted.
What, did he have a dictionary in his head? "I'd prefer the former."
"Magic cops. Of course you are," the Captain sighed. Then he extended a hand, dredging another smile up from somewhere. "How about we start over, then, and pretend the restaurant never happened? I'm Jim Kirk. And we're definitely in the market for any assistance you can give us."
I took it, manfully resisting the temptation to out-masculine his grip. "Restaurant? What restaurant?"
"What restaurant, he says," Ramirez muttered to himself, but shook the offered hand, too.
"We'll get to that," I added. "Story first. Why don't you start at the beginning? We're all ears."
Chapter 3: A Complex Confluence of Events
Once upon a time, a Fallen angel told me that I was born under 'a complex confluence of events, energies and circumstances.' That said circumstances were why I was born. And that as a result, I had the potential to wield power over a very scary class of supernatural entities known as Outsiders, the mere hint of whose presence turns ordinary wizards' bowels to water. In other words: Harry Dresden, Superwizard, at your service.
Personally, I had yet to see any evidence that that was true. If I had any superpower, it was luck: and not just the good kind, but terrible, horrible, no good, and every other flavor, too.
Things just happened to me. Or around me. Or to people on whose behalf I'd willingly cowboy up and pick a fight. If time-traveling government cops were going to arrive in pursuit of an evil wizard from the future? Of course the first people they'd trip over in their search would be me and the only other Warden Commander of North America.
Coincidences like that are bread and butter for my best friend, one of God's sworn warriors. But Michael has Someone to thank for that sort of interference. When a rain of frogs falls on my head, I have only myself-- and whatever Darth Baddie is active that particular week-- to thank for it.
...Unless, of course, I'm not the only one they're splatting all over.
If my flavor of luck is problematic on its own? My luck plus Michael's brand of coincidence tends to converge in exponential levels of mayhem. The kind that might threaten to break a millennia-old Holy weapon, drop us into a merry chase with more Fallen than had ever been collected in one place since they were just a jingle in Judas' pocketbook, or save forty-some wizardlings from near-certain death, tangentially including Michael's own daughter.
Yeah. Keeping all that in mind? It sort of put current events in perspective.
It was that last event in particular I was reminded of just then, as I listened to a spaceship captain-- who'd arrived in San Francisco of all cities just when I was in town to dicker with my West Coast counterpart-- expound on the tale of a foe who'd snuck aboard his vessel, stolen some kind of four-dimensional crystal involved in powering its engines, and then used the thing to create a portal to twentieth century Earth. My inner, geeky ten year old and my honed investigator's instincts were both doing the mental equivalent of breathing into a paper bag... but for completely separate reasons.
Coincidentally, Molly's trial had been the last time I'd heard from the Gatekeeper.
Coincidentally, that had been the last time I'd heard a certain other name, too.
I cleared my throat and raised my gloved left hand. "Excuse me," I interrupted him, incredulously. "Did you just say your rogue wizard's name was Gregor?"
Kirk straightened alertly in his seat and shared a brief speaking glance with his green-tinted alien friend. "Yes," he said. "Have you heard of him?"
Coincidence could go take a freaking leap. Forget the sufficiently advanced science and the fact that Kirk and his men had swum against the Currents of Time; the fact that their particular wizard might be one I'd actually heard of might just be the most unbelievable part of their tale.
Luck, right? Right.
I swallowed, exchanging a glance of my own with Ramirez. My fellow Warden looked puzzled, but generally expectant... and even a little wry, like he should have known I was about to pull another radioactive rabbit out of a hat. Frankly, I felt pretty much the same way.
"Uh. Maybe?" I said. If it really was the Gregor I'd heard of, that name been shared with me in utmost confidence, and only because I might need the information to save a young woman's life. But other lives might be at stake, now. Charity was just going to have to forgive me. "How sure are you about the timeline?"
"To what timeline do you refer?" Mr. Spock replied on his Captain's behalf, raising one freakishly angled eyebrow. I couldn't help but wonder what alien evolutionary advantage had selected for that, of all possible facial hair configurations? It was a little distracting.
"I heard one of you say it couldn't have been more than a decade since he'd arrived," I explained, dragging my attention away from the eyebrow to frown at Kirk again.
"How firm is that estimate? And more to the point...." I continued. Wizarding apprenticeships didn't exactly cover the mechanics of time travel, the better not to tempt impressionable young minds to break the Sixth Law of Magic, but it didn't take an expert to spot the inconsistency. "Why didn't you show up right after him? Why follow him now?"
Kirk grimaced, a little sheepish and a lot annoyed. "The method we used to get here wasn't very exact," he explained. "When Gregor did his disappearing act, the device he'd built exploded, flooding the ship with chronometric particles. That's the reason the changes in the timeline didn't affect us immediately; but it also meant we had to find another way to follow him quickly, before the particles started to fade. We've had some experience with temporal anomalies before, though, so once Scotty fixed the engines we paid a visit to... a particular nexus of possibility. We used it to zero in on the first major divergence point we could find between the history it knew, and ours. And that's when we went through."
Ramirez looked nearly as disturbed as I felt. "And that was now? What about all the butterflies flapping their wings in the meantime?"
Kirk snorted, blue eyes glinting with amusement. Apparently, they'll still be making movies about that catchily named theory even in an era when time travel is common enough to have known nexii. "If there were changes, they were minor enough that we couldn't track down their origins. Trust me, the timeline's a lot more resilient than you think. I wouldn't call it destiny, exactly, but fate has a way of streamlining itself into some pretty solid patterns."
"Streamlining?" I must have looked as dubious as I felt, because Mr. Scott, the engineer of their trio, spoke up to clarify.
"Think of it this way," he said, looking up from his bitty computer thing to spread his hands in front of him. "You step on a blade of grass. Grind the poor bugger into the earth." He waggled the fingers of his left hand. "But in a parallel universe, someone bumps you, and you step sideways onto another blade of grass instead." He waggled the other, crooking his fingers in a wilting demonstration. "Two separate universes, you see? But a week after you step on the grass, in both universes, someone tills it all up to plant a garden." Both hands went flat. "And suddenly, which blade of grass it was makes no bloody difference. And a distinction that makes no difference isn't much of a distinction, now is it?" He clapped his palms together, linking his fingers for emphasis.
"Blades of grass. Right." I blew out a breath, comparing that information against the pieces I already had, and turned toward the window of the motel room. The phrase reminded me uncomfortably of hearing more than one supernatural critter refer to humans as kine; there were an awful lot of things living in the dark that agreed with that perspective, for much more nefarious reasons.
I let the faint noise of traffic outside divert me from that train of thought, and twitched the drab drapes aside for a look. At the Muni stop across the street, a young woman in jeans and a sweater with a backpack slung over one shoulder was huddling in the evening chill, watching the stream of cars pass by. There was nothing about her to hint at a magical heritage-- but then, Charity must have looked much the same when she was that age, during the runaway phase she'd gone through after she'd left her wealthy parents' oppressive home. You really couldn't tell a book by its cover.
If Gregor, that megalomaniacal jerk, hadn't found her, would the doughtiest woman of my acquaintance have ever met Michael Carpenter? Would she have died under a Warden's blade instead, rather than setting her gifts aside for a life as warrior, mother, and helpmeet? Or would she still have taken the 38 out to Land's End to join that gaggle of other minor talents under better circumstances? Even small talents can affect the world on a grand scale if they band together; just ask my friend Toot-toot.
But if any of those things had happened...
My mind shied away from that domino trail of potential consequences, and I spoke up again.
"I did hear of a warlock by that name. Typical charismatic cult leader type; corrupted and killed a lot of vulnerable teenagers right here in this city trying to build his own powerbase. But he appeared on the scene more like twenty-five years ago than ten. What are the odds that it's the same guy?"
Spock's alien eyebrow jerked toward the ceiling again. "Approximately point zero zero zero three percent," he concluded. "The name Gregory and its variants were among the top thousand most popular male names of this era and culture, amid a population of more than three hundred million."
Forget dictionary; did he carry an encyclopedia around in his head? No wonder he talked like a page out of a textbook. Or maybe one of those really prim British novels of a certain era. Not that, you know, I've ever read any; I blame Bob for that particular piece of knowledge.
"For the whole population, sure," I snarked back. "You're forgetting the magical community is a hell of a lot smaller. Isn't it kind of telling that he was here, in the same city that nexus of yours sent you to?"
Kirk still looked skeptical. "That's assuming he didn't change his name. Why would he wait twenty-five years? We figured it might have taken him a while to build up a power base, but a whole generation? He snuck aboard the flagship of the fleet rather than wait for a less risky ride, which suggests he felt like he had to act in a hurry; it makes no sense that he'd suddenly slow down once he arrived."
I sighed, then turned away from the window. He had a point-- but he was overlooking something. "Unless someone stopped him already."
Kirk and Spock exchanged thoughtful glances at that, but didn't comment.
The Gregor I'd heard of had wanted power hasta pronto, all right-- enough to think that sacrificing his acolytes to a dragon was a good idea. I'd met Siriothrax's brother, Ferrovax, so I had some inkling of just how boneheaded a guy would have to be to think he could triumph when dealing with a being that could flatten a man with a thought and ring a partial Name off his teeth like a tuning fork.
Ramirez replied in lieu of visitor intervention. "Harry, are you sure? I've been over most of the Warden records for the last fifty years, for... well. You know what for."
I knew. Luccio had been carefully keeping me out of the loop-- for which small mercy I was grateful-- but yeah, I knew.
"And I don't remember seeing the name Gregor on the list of past warlocks," he continued, crossing his arms over his chest.
"I doubt he would have been; it wasn't the Council that stopped him." I shook my head, then reached over to the little end table wedged between the window and the nearest bed and eyed my hosts again. "Mind if I use the phone? There's something I should confirm before I say anything else."
"That's a telephone?" Mr. Scott blurted in surprise, distracted by the sight of the nineties-era plastic monstrosity. "Bit big for that, isn't it?"
"Kicking it old school," I agreed. "The older the better. Disruption field, remember? High tech stuff doesn't agree with me."
Kirk pursed his mouth, ignoring the tangent. "I hope you have more to go on than just the similarity of names."
I thought I did. But-- it would be better to be sure. I nodded, then picked up the receiver and dialed the Carpenter household to set about getting my answers. Luckily, Charity was home, and though her voice froze over so fast it fairly crackled when she realized what I was asking about, she did reluctantly fill in the parts I hadn't gathered for myself.
"Well?" Kirk asked impatiently after I hung up.
I took a deep breath, then let it out. "We need to go to Sutro Heights," I said.
Chapter 4: Tying Up the Loose Ends
I read somewhere, once, that the phrase 'tying up the loose ends' owes its origins to the sea. A rope 'at loose ends' is unattached and therefore neglected or not doing its job, and ropes of all kinds were pretty much the duct tape of the Age of Sail: they kept everything from flying apart. My brother is the one who owns a boat these days, not me, but I've dangled from enough ropes, metaphorical and otherwise, to really get that definition on a visceral level.
To 'tie up loose ends', one settles the final details of a matter as a sailor makes the loose ends of ropes shipshape. But this particular rope, if I was right, had spent the last couple of decades unraveling. I wasn't sure there was enough of it left to even splice new line in, much less tie the ends together.
I couldn't let myself think that way, though, or I was going to start panicking; and Wardens of the White Council of Wizards do not succumb to panic. They get their smite on. The smitee in this particular case might have already got his, but I was pretty sure I'd still be called upon to flex some magical muscle. I hit Ramirez up for all the spare cash in his pockets, then headed down with the others to wait for the next bus toward Point Lobos.
If we'd had more time, I might have encouraged Kirk and company to find something to wear besides their vivid, primary colored uniforms-- but we were in San Francisco, so I wasn't too worried. There was probably a convention of some kind in town-- and even if there wasn't, a little eccentricity would be nothing to raise an eyebrow at. Take a long look at, maybe: even the scrawniest of the three strangers had an accent to accessorize with, and the other two were more in Ramirez' ballpark than mine on the scale of masculine attractiveness. But they wouldn't, you know, get noticed in a way that might attract the attention of the authorities.
In fact, they pretty much camouflaged the guys in the grey cloaks by their mere presence. Nothing to see here, officer. Move along.
I'm tall enough to be a basketball player, tend to dress like I got dragged backwards through a Wal-Mart and tried to hide the results under a black leather duster, and carry around a carved walking stick nearly as tall as I am. I'm well aware of how nocuous I usually look, okay?
After a short bus ride and a shorter walk, we arrived at the Sutro Historical District. Back in the late nineteenth century, former San Francisco mayor Adolph Sutro had bought several acres of undeveloped land at the edge of the city, including a promontory overlooking the Cliff House and Seal Rocks. He then turned the property into Sutro Heights, an elaborate public garden filled with decorated flower beds, statues, forests and vista points to take advantage of the breathtaking views. He built his home there too, a spacious turreted mansion set on a rocky ledge just south of Point Lobos and north of Ocean Beach. After his daughter died in 1938, the family donated the estate to the city-- which promptly demolished the buildings and turned the place into Sutro Heights Park.
The property had been through a number of natural disasters over the last century. It'd also hosted thousands upon thousands of human beings in a heightened state of energy: not just the Sutro family, but the visitors who'd spent a dime to walk the gardens back when Sutro lived there, the many tourists who'd strolled up the entry road between its guardian stone lions in the century since, the families who'd laughed and played in the famous three-acre glass bathhouse on the grounds before it was destroyed by fire, and any of the famous names who stopped there on their way to the nearby landmark Cliff House.
Add to that the state of environmental flux-- the sea below, the winds above, the near-constant fog-- and the park made for a significant confluence of energy. But unless they've actually been there, or know someone who's been there, it's not the first place that comes to mind when people think of 'sites of power in San Francisco.' That makes it as isolated a hotspot as you're ever likely to find in a city that size. It was obvious why Gregor had chosen it for his ritual grounds. And given all the factors involved, I could think of no better place for Kirk's 'major divergence point' to happen.
Have happened. Or-- will be happening? Time travel is hell on the verb tenses. I just hoped I didn't end up having to try to conjugate it in Latin.
The fact that not one of our guests had asked me where Sutro Heights was before we bought our tickets or gawked like a tourist at the landscape of the city made me even more convinced I was on the right track. They knew San Francisco. Would know it; had known it; whatever. And within my potential lifespan, too; which did strange and interesting things to my peace of mind.
My second mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, counted his age in multiple centuries and he was still going strong. He'd seen the Industrial Revolution; if I didn't manage to get myself killed in the new few years, I might see the next major change in human progress. Maybe even go aboard a spaceship myself, if that duotronics thing Scott mentioned earlier solved the techbane problem. Now there was an item to add to my bucket list!
The rain brought me back to the present, just a slight drizzle of dampness as we walked into the park. A thin haze of fog was drifting up from the sea, cutting visibility, and there was a distinct bite in the air, enough to make my duster a legitimate fashion choice. It wasn't just the temperature, though; there was something magical to it, as well.
Kirk watched me tilt my head as I tried to pinpoint the sensation, then frowned up the road between its border of trees, palmed-leafed and deciduous and evergreen all marching together. "How sure are you that this is the right place?" he said. "I've been here before; it's part of the Academy grounds in our time, and I don't remember there being anything all that unusual about it."
"It's not the place that's magic, exactly," I told him. "It's what was done here."
"I can hear it, too," Ramirez said, frowning. "After twenty-five years, that's a little unusual. You think your Gregor left something behind? I know I'm the only Warden assigned in these parts at the moment, but there used to be a lot more. We can't be the only wizards to visit since he did his thing here."
Ramirez's choice of phrase reminded me that not all wizards' Sight worked the same; I Saw things in metaphor and symbol, but he'd once told me soulgazes translated to him in musical themes. Apparently, it applied to his other wizardly instincts, too. "What exactly are you hearing? Wind chimes? The Jaws theme? What?"
He made the dun-dun, dun-dun sound of a bow scraping across the strings of a bass under his breath, then snorted. "Nothing that coherent, actually. More like-- that high whine that computers make before you short them out?"
"Supernatural white noise. Joy," I said. It made sense, though, if he'd done what I thought he might've. "Mr. Scott, can you pick up those crystals of yours on that little box?"
The engineer eyed Ramirez and I, a subdued sort of anticipation in his expression, then took a few steps away from us and activated his palm-top computer again, tapping away at its display. Whatever he saw there seemed to confuse him, though; he looked up at his Captain, then gave me a frustrated look.
"Aye," he said. "I'm reading traces of dilithium-- but only traces, and I cannae get a fix on its location."
Ramirez frowned. "Sounds like he set a veil-- but there's no way he could have anchored one for twenty-five years. Most enchanted objects only hold a charge for a few months, at most."
I nodded. "Unless he used the crystal itself to anchor the spell, like a power source...."
"As he had done previously, when activating the temporal portal," Spock connected the dots, leaping to the front of the class.
I nodded, then proceeded into the park, wanting to be as isolated as I could get from the rest of the city before trying my Sight. It might be impossible to find what Gregor had hid there without it, if no other factors intervened; but there was no telling what else I'd See, and the unforgiving lens of the so-called Third Eye etched everything into a wizard's memory with perfect and permanent crystal clarity. Some of the things I'd Seen in the past had been beautiful-- but many more utterly horrific. The less interference I risked, the better.
The quiet around us grew deeper as we walked down the road. The sounds of the city were an ever-present backdrop, but it was as though we carried a bubble of stillness with us. The rain might've discouraged some of the tourists, but it seemed a little unlikely that the place would be completely empty just at the time we chose to visit it-- unless we weren't the first interested parties to arrive. I surreptitiously shook my shield bracelet out again, then gave Ramirez a cautious nod.
We passed by groomed lawns, replica statuary, and careful landscaping, all of it picturesque for a certain value of manmade beauty, but the silence remained unbroken as we approached the actual ritual site. No groundskeepers or tourists or picnicking locals emerged from the mist. There was a gazebo, a quiescent fountain, and informative signage spaced about, but no one lounging within, tossing a quarter into the depths, or taking notes for high school history papers. Just us, the fog, and what looked like it might have been the foundations of the former house or outbuilding, a cobble-built wall surmounting a terraced hillside with a crenellated top surrounding a flat, paved area.
We proceeded up the stairs, accompanied by the rush of the surf and the distant call of a few seabirds, then formed a loose circle in the open space above.
"Here?" Kirk asked.
"Here," I nodded.
"The signals are stronger," Mr. Scott said, checking his computer again, "but I still dinnae see...."
I cleared my throat, then exchanged a glance at Ramirez, jerking my chin toward the other side of the flat, paved area, where a wind-worn tree grew up and stretched its branches over the wall. "You will," I said, quietly. "Divergence point, remember? Gotta be something here to divert."
Then I raised my voice and welcomed our other guests to the party. "Olly olly oxen free! Come out, come out, wherever you are! Don't make me track you down; you know what this cloak means."
There was a subdued growl off to the side, and a hasty attempt on someone's part to shush the speaker; then the clear air rippled, and a pair of youngish guys wearing what looked like a casual recreationist's idea of medieval monk robes appeared. The veil I'd been detecting since walking into the park was still there; I could sense it-- but they'd removed themselves from its influence, and it had grown a lot quieter, falling to a background hum you would never notice if you weren't expecting it. Neat trick. It was almost too bad Gregor's knowledge had been lost when Michael took him out of the equation.
"Fucking Wardens. Think you're so much better than us," one of them spat. The other had his hand clamped around his bicep, trying to calm him down, though it didn't seem to be having much effect. "You have no right to interfere with the Master's work!"
I let Ramirez reply; this was his turf, after all. His natural expression was a cocksure smile, but when it was time to get serious, he went with a cool, arrogant look that seemed to stare right through people. It sure worked on these guys; they bristled up even more at him than they had at me.
"What work? Destroying innocent people's lives? You honestly think you could pick up where your Master left off and fare any better than he did?" Ramirez snorted.
"You honestly think your way's going to save people?" the angry wizard spat. "Our mothers heard the Oracle speak before the Master left us. All your Council's going to do is sit back while the world falls into another global war! And when it comes, when all of humanity is left back in the dark ages, we'll be the ones to lead them into a bright new future!"
I refused to turn to see Kirk's reaction. If their "Oracle" had been drawn from Gregor's knowledge of the future, whatever they were talking about might well be something that had actually happened in his timeline. Global war; it wasn't hard to imagine, given how little consideration the various supernatural powers paid to collateral damage in their attempts to score points on each other during the ongoing conflicts. But whatever might or might not have happened, there were obviously still wizards in existence in the present Kirk had come from-- and just as obviously, forces of law and order to oppose them. Gregor must have wanted to rejigger history to put wizards-- his type of wizards-- further up the power scale in the aftermath.
"And I suppose that future's one where everyone knows their proper place?" I replied, mildly.
The kid curled his lip. "Starting with grey-cloaks like you who think it's your business to stop anyone else from getting enough power to threaten the status quo. We all know that's what's really behind those Laws you're so righteous about!"
Truthfully, I'd questioned the Laws a time or two myself. But though I'd never be easy with the punishments the Council chose, I'd also seen the consequences of breaking them on the caster's own heart and mind, both first hand and in others. But that wasn't even a factor in this case-- it hadn't been the Wardens who'd rid the world of Gregor.
"So that's your plan, then? Take up the mantle your Master left behind?" Kirk asked, sounding bored. "You do know he was a thief and a bully even before he got here and found a whole new bunch of gullible people to use, right? That really the legacy you're looking for?"
"You're a liar," the second kid said, letting go the first kid's arm as his own temper boiled over. "We're going to take you out, and then gather the other heirs of the Master's work and prepare for what's coming. You won't be able to stop us!"
Other heirs. That was the Molly connection I'd been sure we'd trip over ever since we got here; well played, Gatekeeper. Well played. That thought had been the final straw in convincing me to help the time travelers-- and if not for that, we might not have arrived in time to stop these idiots.
The young man vanished from sight again behind that impenetrable veil-- then dropped it a second later, dismantling the spell entirely. It left him clutching what looked like a pair of Kirk's futuristic guns in one hand and a box like Scott's computer in the other, wrapped up in a shroud of silvery material. Something that looked very much like a crystal rested atop that shroud, but the sheer oppressive mental heat coming off the thing made me very glad I hadn't had to open my Sight after all: it was like a little sun of contained power.
The bully snatched one of the guns from his friend's hand while I endeavored to look shocked, waiting for the next step in our plan to develop. "Magic can't stop these weapons. But I welcome you to try. I'm going to enjoy this!" he cried.
...And with a truly theatrical sense of timing, Mr. Spock-- who'd circled the hill to the other side-- abruptly appeared behind them, applying his fingers viciously in a method I had experienced first hand.
"Finally," I sighed. I wished them joy of their headaches. Then I crossed the pavement to retrieve the stolen objects from their hands, and turned to present them to Kirk.
The captain shook his head as he took them, a grim frown drawing his face into serious lines. "Now I think I get the Prime Directive a little better," he said. "Hard to imagine something this little could cause so much trouble."
Yeah. Personally, I was just glad it had been a something rather than a someone. I wouldn't have been able to act if I'd had to stop Molly herself or any of her siblings from, well, being. Maybe Charity would have had a magical daughter regardless? Maybe Michael still would have had the seven wonderful kids, just with a different mother? Conservation of temporal energy, or whatever it was Scott had said.
Or maybe they and all their descendants were going to die in that war the kids had mentioned, so it wouldn't have mattered either way? I decided not to dwell on that possibility.
"It will be-- for them," I replied, shaking my head. "Ramirez, they're all yours."
"Thanks, man," he sighed, wrinkling up his nose. "Least favorite part of my job, bar none."
"So how are you planning to--?" I asked, turning back to Kirk.
But the park was silent; he was already gone. So was the engineer. And Spock. Whatever mechanism had sent them to the past, they'd already reversed-- and I hadn't sensed a thing.
"Dios," Ramirez said, startling.
"Hells Bells," I agreed. "Sure, leave us to pick up the check."
I didn't look forward to the next time I talked to Charity; I didn't know how I was going to explain any of this. I didn't even know how I was going to set it down in my journals without it sounding utterly unbelievable.
"Nice working with you guys," I added sarcastically to the empty air. "Catch you next time, huh?"
You never knew. They only lived a few centuries away. Maybe I would.